NASA to study the Moon's mysterious Gruithuisen Domes for the first time

NASA’s Artemis mission has the chief goals of sending astronauts to establish the first long-term presence on the Moon and learning what is necessary to send the first astronauts to Mars. But it’s also planning to do so much more than that.

One of its many scientific mission will see the agency send the Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer (Lunar-VISE) and the Lunar Explorer Instrument for space biology Applications (LEIA) to the Moon in order to explore the mysterious Gruithuisen Domes, geological features that have puzzled scientists for years.

Addressing important scientific questions

These two tools will provide key data for NASA scientists, according to a statement published by the agency on Thursday.

“The two selected studies will address important scientific questions related to the Moon” Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in the press release. “The first will study geologic processes of early planetary bodies that are preserved on the Moon by investigating a rare form of lunar volcanism. The second will study the effects of the Moon’s low gravity and radiation environment on yeast, a model organism used to understand DNA damage response and repair.”

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Lunar-VISE will explore the summit of one of the Gruithuisen Domes over the course of 10 days to uncover how these domes, suspected to have been formed by a sticky magma rich in silica similar in composition to granite, were formed without the presence of liquid water or plate tectonics. This has been a long-standing mystery for space scientists.

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Meanwhile, LEIA, a small CubeSat-based device, will provide biological research on the Moon by delivering the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an important model of human biology, to the lunar surface and studying its response to radiation and lunar gravity. The data this mission collects will complement previously existing information from other biological studies to help scientists figure out how partial gravity and actual deep-space radiation influence biological systems. 

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A long-standing mystery

The Gruithuisen Domes have been a mystery for NASA scientists for many years. The agency describes them as follows:

“The Gruithuisen Domes are a geologic enigma. Based on early telescopic and spacecraft observations, these domes have long been suspected to be formed by a magma rich in silica, similar in composition to granite. Observations from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) confirmed that the Gruithuisen Domes are distinct from the surrounding terrain, which is covered by ancient hardened basaltic lava flows,” states the NASA report.

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“The real mystery is how such silicic magmas could form on the Moon. On Earth, silicic volcanoes typically form in the presence of two ingredients—water and plate tectonics. But without these key ingredients on the Moon, scientists are left to wonder: How did the Gruithuisen Domes form?”

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Will we finally have an answer to this question? Only time and perhaps the Artemis mission will tell.

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